The Line Between Health and Obsession: Muscle Dysmorphia?

April 4, 2013 | Kate Knappenberger

Muscle Dysmorphia

There's a line between health and obsession that some athletes come dangerously close to crossing. "Demand perfection" and "Do you think your competition is resting?" are two popular training statements meant to motivate athletes to never be content with their current fitness level.

Between professional athletes talking about their hours of daily training and the media inundating us with photos and videos of the "perfect" athlete body, it's no wonder that  athletes feel pressure to get "jacked." A commitment to the gym and other healthy habits is great, but it can spiral out of control. (See also Improve Health and Performance Without Hurting Your Game.)

In rare cases, athletes can develop a psychological condition known as muscle dysmorphia. Sufferers are usually involved in sports that stress size and strength, like football, wrestling and bodybuilding. Although they are quite muscular, they still see themselves as "too small," and they constantly think about food, dieting, training and their appearance. To reach their ideal body size and shape, people with muscle dysmorphia often turn to dangerous supplements and steroids. Interestingly, they never reach their ideal size and always have an area of their body that "needs work." (Protect Yourself Against Fitness Gimmicks With “Muscle Myths.”)

In an athletic training community based on competition, anyone is at risk for muscle dysmorphia. This is more than a misunderstood strong desire to be the best. It is a serious condition that if left untreated can lead to nutrient deficiency, injury, illness, and a host of side effects associated with taking harmful drugs and supplements.

One way to identify a person who may be suffering from muscle dysmorphia is to observe their behaviors and  the comments they make about themselves and their lifestyle.

A Person with Muscle Dysmorphia Might Say:

  • "I feel extremely guilty when I miss a training session or deviate from my diet."
  • "I spend a lot of time analyzing my body in the mirror."
  • "When I look at myself, all I see are areas that need improvement."
  • "I wear clothes that hide the areas of my body that I'm not happy with."
  • "I use many different muscle building supplements and/or steroids."
  • "I constantly compare myself and my body to others."
  • "I have missed work or family events because training is more important."
  • "My training and eating have interfered with my relationships with friends and family."
  • "I continue to exercise even with a serious injury, such as a broken bone."
  • "No matter how long I work out or diet, I'm never satisfied with my appearance."

Many individuals with muscle dysmorphia refuse to seek treatment from a mental health professional; therefore, it is important to try to prevent the condition from happening in the first place.

Muscle Does Not Make the Man

To reduce your chances of developing muscle dysmorphia, practice the following healthy behaviors:

  • Value your Health. It is more important than your performance and appearance. Don't let diet, supplements and training negatively impact your health.
  • Stop Comparing. Do not compare your body to others. Ignore pictures in the media that have been airbrushed to perfection. (Read Reduce Self-Imposed Demands to Improve Your Athletic Performance.)
  • No Body is Perfect. Recognize that successful athletes come in different shapes and sizes. Celebrate the experiences that your body has given you.
  • Turn your Focus Inward. Your outside appearance does not define the type of person you are, your athletic ability, or your character.
  • Find Support. Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. Train at a supportive facility that emphasizes health over appearance.
  • Wear Comfortable Clothes. Buy clothes that make you feel good about the body that you have.

Muscle dysmorphia is psychological condition much different from eating healthy and training to build muscle. Learn to recognize the signs of muscle dysphorphia, and seek help from a mental health professional if you suspect you or a loved one is at risk. Since treatment is difficult, it's best to create an environment that prevents it from occurring in the first place. The best defense is a good offense.

Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Must See
Why You Should Never Doubt Colin Kaepernick Why You Should Never Doubt Colin Kaepernick
Views: 24,436,943
Antonio Brown Juggles 3 Footballs Antonio Brown Juggles 3 Footballs
Views: 1,213,761
Abby Wambach Will Do Whatever It Takes Abby Wambach Will Do Whatever It Takes
Views: 5,881,163

Featured Videos

Basketball Shooting Drill With Kevin Love: 5 Spots, 5 Shots Basketball Shooting Drill With Kevin Love: 5 Spots, 5 Shots Views: 243,040
Real Workouts: Randall Cobb Real Workouts: Randall Cobb Views: 22,491
A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce A Day in the Life With Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce Views: 15,097
Load More

Resources

STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers

Magazine

Latest issues of STACK Magazine

STACK 4W

Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice

Gamer

Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes

News

Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift
Views: 1,576,211
Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles Dribbling Drills for Tighter Handles
Views: 4,332,938
Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill Ohio State Football Open Field Plyo Drill
Views: 9,498,918
Drew Brees Will Not Be Denied Drew Brees Will Not Be Denied
Views: 11,269,514
Tobin Heath Closed-Space Dribbling Tobin Heath Closed-Space Dribbling
Views: 1,174,560

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like
What's Your Backup Plan When 'Plan A' Fails?

What's Your Backup Plan When 'Plan A' Fails?

What's Your Back-Up Plan When "Plan A" Fails On or Off the Field? By Jim Carpentier, CSCS Athletes must bring their "A" Game in all sorts of weather...

Get Tough on Your Goals to Get Fit

Get Tough on Your Goals to Get Fit

How to Improve Mental Focus on the Baseball Diamond

How to Improve Mental Focus on the Baseball Diamond

Regain Your Confidence by Getting BIG

Regain Your Confidence by Getting BIG

How Clayton Kershaw Gets in the Zone

How Clayton Kershaw Gets in the Zone

The Holistic Approach to Impactful Sports Coaching

The Holistic Approach to Impactful Sports Coaching

Build Mental Toughness in the Weight Room

Build Mental Toughness in the Weight Room

The One Word You Should Never Say to Yourself

The One Word You Should Never Say to Yourself

Overcome Your Fear of Failure

Overcome Your Fear of Failure

How Mental Flexibility Boosts Your Game

How Mental Flexibility Boosts Your Game

Q&A: How to Deal With a Tough Coach

Q&A: How to Deal With a Tough Coach

Tips to Be a Better Leader

Tips to Be a Better Leader

How to 'Keep Your Cool' on the Football Field

How to 'Keep Your Cool' on the Football Field

The Art of Strength and Conditioning Coaching

The Art of Strength and Conditioning Coaching

Using Sports Imagery as Pre-Performance Routine

Using Sports Imagery as Pre-Performance Routine

Positive Affirmations for Athletes

Positive Affirmations for Athletes

How Nik Wallenda Prepared to Walk Across the Grand Canyon

How Nik Wallenda Prepared to Walk Across the Grand Canyon

6 Ways Sport Parents Are Doing It Wrong

6 Ways Sport Parents Are Doing It Wrong

Why You Should Be Training Instead of Exercising

Why You Should Be Training Instead of Exercising

How Mental Performance Affects Your Workouts

How Mental Performance Affects Your Workouts

Overcome the 5 Most Common Mental Mistakes in Sports

Overcome the 5 Most Common Mental Mistakes in Sports

Growth Mindset: How to Think Like a Champion

Growth Mindset: How to Think Like a Champion

4 Obstacles to Better Goal Setting

4 Obstacles to Better Goal Setting

Study: Athletes Think Faster, More Accurately Than Non-Athletes

Study: Athletes Think Faster, More Accurately Than Non-Athletes

The Athletic Brain: How to Learn to Anticipate

The Athletic Brain: How to Learn to Anticipate

Use Sports Psychology Against Your Opponents

Use Sports Psychology Against Your Opponents

Can a Faster Brain Increase Sports Performance?

Can a Faster Brain Increase Sports Performance?

4 Reasons Your Team Is Losing

4 Reasons Your Team Is Losing

5 Tips for Playing Mentally Tough Tennis

5 Tips for Playing Mentally Tough Tennis

5 Tips to Becoming a Successful Athlete

5 Tips to Becoming a Successful Athlete

5 Steps to Becoming a Better Coach

5 Steps to Becoming a Better Coach

5 Steps to Changing a Bad Habit

5 Steps to Changing a Bad Habit

Does Home Field Actually Confer an Advantage?

Does Home Field Actually Confer an Advantage?

4 Tips for Building Confidence

4 Tips for Building Confidence

Stress Exposure Training for Basketball

Stress Exposure Training for Basketball

Home Field Advantage Is Real, Says Science

Home Field Advantage Is Real, Says Science

How Mentally Tough Are You?

How Mentally Tough Are You?

Why Athletes Must Focus on Developing Their Own Identity

Why Athletes Must Focus on Developing Their Own Identity

Mental Warm-Up: How to Build Confidence Before a Game

Mental Warm-Up: How to Build Confidence Before a Game

A Coach Describes What Its Like to Cut Players

A Coach Describes What It

YardBarker